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Major Exhibition of African Sculpture by the Lega Peoples of the
Democratic Republic of Congo at UMMA Oct 16-Jan 1

“Let me explain to him the whispers of the teachings.”
–Lega saying

The University of Michigan Museum of Art is pleased to present a major exhibition of African art entitled Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa, which explores the rich array of creative imagery—including exquisite masks, spoons, baskets, and abstracted figures made from wood and ivory—employed by the Lega Peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of the elegant sculpture comes from the collection of physicist Jay T. Last, who began collecting Lega art in the 1960s and has amassed one of the most important and comprehensive collections of this material in the world. The exhibition—which originated at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History—will be on view at UMMA from October 16, 2004 through January 16, 2005.

Lega, Human Figure

Human figure
Lega, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Wood and pigment
Promised gift of Jay T. Last
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History
Photo by Don Cole

A first encounter with a work of Lega art can have meaning for any viewer. In addition to the impressive grace and sophistication of the abstracted sculptural forms, there is something inexplicably understandable in the smooth, buttery surfaces of an ivory spoon or the expressive features of a carved wood face. To the Western viewer, the gesture or posture of a figure may communicate notions that seem familiar yet hard to put into words.

However, a member of the Lega association known as Bwami would have no trouble putting those ideas into words. For the Lega peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo, every work of art is associated with proverbs that, when part of a ritual combination of poetry, dance, art, and song, impart wisdom to the society member. Lega sculpture conveys the ethical, social, and political values of Lega culture.

The men and women in Lega culture enter the centuries-old Bwami society to learn skills and wisdom for life that are taught to initiates through the art. These elegantly carved pieces are passed down through the generations and kept private by the members of the many levels of the organization. From the insignia of membership and found objects used in the early stages of initiation, to zoomorphic figures and figural sculptures that reflect age and wisdom, Bwami is a life-long path. It teaches members of Lega society that moral goodness begets beauty and that knowledge is power.

The works in the exhibition are divided among nine sections, which range from Bwami teaching tools and masks, to found objects, utilitarian pieces, and works of personal adornment. Natural materials and objects, such as shells, horns, and claws, are included, offering a glimpse into the artists’ environment, materials, and possible sources of inspiration. The majority of the works are carved wood or ivory, the latter a material considered the exclusive domain of the highest level of the Bwami Society. Although modest in scale, these works are grand in their expressive power, successfully showcasing the Lega aesthetic and sense of design, which is characterized by a refinement of form and a potent spirituality.

The proverbs associated with the works may vary according to the context in which they are used, and often the sculptures represent metaphors for life lessons. For example, an anthropomorphic sleeping mat is a recurring Lega motif that implies laziness or sexual laxity. A popular saying compares a swarm of red ants to a sleeping mat. A sexually promiscuous person is also understood as a sleeping mat and is likened to a swarm of red ants that can create disorder in a community. The saying that is most often used in association with this sculpture, called “Mr. Sleeping Mat,” is “I used to love you; fondling destroys good ones; it has destroyed Katunda (mat).”

Comprising five levels for men and three for women, Bwami is a voluntary association open to all Lega. Bwami influence encompasses the breadth of a person’s life. As the Lega say, “It is something that sticks and leaves a trace.” Most men and women enter the beginning levels of Bwami, but few reach the highest rank, known as Kindi. Character, kinship support, and participation in initiations dictate one’s advancement in Bwami. This lifelong educational process requires years of study with respected teachers and the successful completion of a series of initiatory rites that combine music, dance, gesture, proverbs, and the visual arts. As the initiate interprets a precise combination of these elements, their knowledge of Bwami truths is revealed and their achievements honored.

As one moves through the ranks of Bwami, he or she is given fewer verbal lessons by which to interpret the art. Moving higher through the association means understanding the lessons of an object and its proverbs on a deeper and more intuitive level. The exhibition is organized in much the same way. Mirroring the sequence of Bwami teachings, the art is presented in context with proverbs, music, and photos of Bwami ritual. As the viewer navigates the galleries, he or she encounters fewer and fewer didactic materials so as to begin to perceive the work in a more visceral way.

The artists who created objects for Bwami worked primarily in seclusion from other artists and were taught through a system of apprenticeship. Figures were carved on commission from high-ranking Bwami members. An artist would be given limited information about the gender, size, and gesture of the work of art, as well as the materials needed, generally wood, bone, or ivory. The sculptures, therefore, are the result of great artistic freedom, and among a uniformity of dimension and theme there exists a wealth of stylistic variety. In general the small figures have a statuesque, monumental quality that relays their tremendous value in Lega culture. Most of the pieces have acquired a lustrous patina from extensive use and wear, and the ivory is rubbed with red dust to give it color. Often, ivory surfaces have been repeatedly oiled, rendering a soft buttery texture.

Although the exact date of each work is unknown, most probably date to the 19th century or earlier and were collected during the 20th century. Due to civil strife in this region for the past 100 years, particular histories of the works can no longer be reconstructed. From the mid- to late-1800s, the Lega and adjacent peoples were raided for the Indian Ocean trade in slaves and ivory. In 1885 the Lega were brought into the Congo Free State, which became the Belgian Congo in 1908. To this day, the Lega live in an isolated and mountainous region that has long resisted governmental control. Belgian administrators seeking to integrate Lega peoples into colonial society considered Bwami a “threat to tranquility and public order” because it represented forms of political organization outside colonial norms. Authorities outlawed Bwami in 1933 and again in 1948, and Lega arts and ritual practices changed radically. Since Congolese independence in 1960, the Lega and other Congolese have suffered from a tumultuous history of civil strife that continues today. Yet as the brilliant objects of this exhibition suggest, profound wisdom and an acute sense of self and community characterize Lega life, and one can hope that such resourcefulness will carry the Lega through the trials they currently experience.

Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa was co-organized and produced by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. The exhibition was curated by Elisabeth L. Cameron, Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a specialist in Central African arts. It highlights the impressive collection of Lega art of physicist Jay T. Last, who has generously promised these holdings to the UCLA Fowler Museum.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated, scholarly volume entitled Art of the Lega, written by the curator.

This exhibition is made possible in part by the support of Robert M. and Lillian Montalto Bohlen.

For more information please contact Stephanie Rieke at srieke@umich.edu, or 734.647.0524, or call UMMA at 734.763.UMMA (8662).